Of Words and Their Power: Three Examples and a Musing

I’ve been thinking lately about terms and terminology, and the power of words.  Consider the following three examples:

  • Global Warming and climate change.  What is the difference between them?   There are people who feel strongly about using one term versus the other.  Why?
  • While discussing International Law in the context of climate change in Week 4 of my UCSD course on climate change, Dr. David Victor used terms such as “developed countries,” “developing countries” and “Least Developed Countries.”  Some people still use “First World” and “Third World” to refer to countries such as the United States and Indonesia respectively.  What does the usage of such terms imply?
  • Finally, in my own work as a professor at an undergraduate institution, it is commonplace to speak of the STEM pipeline, where STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The pipeline in this case starts with grade school, goes on to college, and presumably deposits a graduate at the doors of an engineering firm or a biotechnology company.  We speak of the “leak in the STEM pipeline,” referring to the disenchantment that so many students experience with these subjects from as early as middle school, thus abandoning possible careers in STEM fields.  I’ve used these terms myself, without being really comfortable with them.

So what does it matter what term we use, in either of these three examples?  Words matter, of course, because they mean something, define a concept, identify an idea.  But words matter also because they can be used as instruments of obfuscation, or derailment, or distraction.  In addition they can help reveal our underlying assumptions about the world.  Our worldviews and paradigms are the air we breathe, the sea in which we swim.  We are often unaware of them, but the words we use might reveal the underlying topography of our belief systems and thereby enable us to question some of our fundamental assumptions.

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Universities of the Future and Other Intellectual Re-Imaginings: More from the AAC&U Conference

Below I continue from my last post to summarize what I learned at the AAC&U Conference in Portland, OR, at the end of February, 2014.  We begin by imagining the university of the future, and end with a serendipitous meeting, and climate change. Continue reading

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AAC&U Conference in Portland!

I interrupt my musings on the UCSD climate change course for a brief series of reports from the AAC&U conference in Portland, Oregon, which is starting this evening.  I am very excited to be here.  I used to live near Portland many years ago and it was a happy time in a beautiful place.  There is a science fiction story that has been in my mind since I arrived here, in which an alien, about to return to his planet from a sojourn on Earth, is asked what he liked the best about his visit.   He says “the people with green hair.”

So when I woke up this morning at the house of an old friend who lives on a mountain, there, outside my window, were the green-haired people: shockingly tall trees, their trunks shaggy with moss, reaching up to the sky.

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Words, Communication and Action: Upcoming posts

I haven’t posted here for a while now, partly because of upcoming travels.  As of now, two posts are currently in progress, one about the power of words and metaphors in the context of climate and education (in which I make some rebellious statements), and another about communicating the science of global climate change (in which ditto).

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“If You See Something, Say Something”: The Scientist as Activist

The title of my post comes from a recent New York Times article by climatologist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University.  About a decade ago, a scientific paper he co-authored flung him into the middle of the climate wars – “hounded by elected officials, threatened by violence, and more.”  His paper established that the Northern Hemisphere’s warming in our times exceeded the records of the past 1000 years, illustrating this with the now famous “hockey stick” graph that is one of the iconic images of climate change science.

Michael Mann once believed that scientists should keep their distance from matters of politics, policy and societal implications of their research in order to safeguard their objectivity.  He no longer believes it.

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Of Bathtubs, Fracking, and Climate Treaties

Imagine a person who has a bad diet – too much meat, carbohydrates, sugars, that sort of thing.  A bad diet doesn’t kill a person right away, so it is extraordinarily difficult for this person to change his or her ways.  As the cholesterol accumulates, perhaps the changes are small and incremental – puffing when climbing the stairs, feeling tired easily because of not enough muscle mass and lowered metabolism.  Plus presumably our protagonist has to work, or has to look after other people, or both, and there is no time to think about a problem that doesn’t yet feel life-threatening.

Until our hero keels over one day due to a heart attack.

The problem of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere is similar to this problem.  It turns out that temperature rise depends on the total accumulation of carbon.  It doesn’t really matter if the carbon dioxide accumulated was done so in a brief burst or over a long period of time.  The point is that the total amount of carbon dioxide is what will affect the health of the planet.  So, just one indulgence in, say, a rich ten-course meal won’t necessarily kill our hero – it’s the total amount of crap in the blood vessels that counts.

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How do we know anything for certain?

At the start of each semester, I hand my students a short-answer survey called Twenty Questions About the Universe.  Its purpose is to gauge basic knowledge from non-science students about everything from the cosmos to atoms.  It is a wonderful way to collect misconceptions about physics that we can later address in the classroom.  At the end of the survey I ask this question:

How do we know anything for certain? 

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